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Smithsonian's History Explorer

Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Mediatrope Interactive Studio


Smithsonian’s History Explorer is a web site designed to help K-12 teachers quickly find and use hundreds of standards-based classroom activities, interactive games, and other resources featuring the artifacts and scholarship of the National Museum of American History.


The site was developed with the guidance of a national teacher advisory group and was funded by a grant from the Verizon Foundation.  Teachers told us that they loved the Museum’s resources, but that it was difficult to find what they were looking for based on the types of themes and topics they were familiar with such as “westward expansion,” “civil rights,” or “Abraham Lincoln.”  


With classroom time dedicated to history topics on the decline, we set out to build a search tool that would make it easier for teachers to find and actually integrate American history resources into their daily instruction. 

  Key Features 

¨      Keyword search with filtering/sorting functions to help teachers find what they want quickly


¨      Visual timeline “sort” functionality to help teachers browse the available resources


¨      Unique reverse look up feature for standards, keywords, and instructional methods to help teachers easily integrate resources into their daily teaching


¨      Artifact of the week and search specific RSS feeds bring content to teachers’ desktops and help maintain a daily relationship between the Museum and the teachers


¨      Related object and related resource features provide helpful and sometimes unexpected connections between the Museum’s artifacts and other educational resources.


¨      To our knowledge, the National Museum of American History is the only history museum to have all of its online educational resources tagged and matched to the National Standards for History




Most teachers search by keyword so we’ve placed that function high above the fold, but a number of our group wanted a more visual, time-based method of sorting content. We worked with teachers to develop our “resources by historical era” tool based on the eras provided in the National Standards for History.  We worked with K-12 teachers on our keyword taxonomy in order to provide predictable results for common terms. Teachers can expand their search to all subjects (math, language arts, science etc.) by checking the “search” box.  The multidisciplinary content is provided by the consortium of which the National Museum of American History is a member.


There is also a weekly “featured artifact” RSS feed that provides teachers with an image and data about an artifact from the Museum’s collections.  The project team endeavors to link objects to current events, anniversaries, and heritage months.  Recently featured artifacts include Roosevelt’s inaugural medal, a $100,000 gold certificate from the depression, and a handbill from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

 Scroll down to timeline

Click on the timeline to scroll through the eras. Click on a red era bar and you’ll see a list of the standards for that era. Clicking the “view all era x” link will allow you to browse every online resource we have for a given era.  Clicking on a star will bring up an image of an object from the Museum’s collection and a short blurb about it. You can click the object’s name to view the full resource.   Using these stars, the staff can take a theme like Black History Month and populate the timeline with Black History objects that span the entire timeline of American history. The result is a mini-exhibition that teachers can use in the classroom or as part of an assignment for students.

 Run a keyword search

Try “westward expansion,” a common thematic unit taught in grades 5 and up. The results page will contain an alphabetized list of all of the artifacts and resources that have to do with westward expansion. Teachers can print or email search results or individual resource pages and can subscribe to an RSS feed that updates them each time the Museum posts a new set of resources about their search term.

 Click on Gouverneur Warren's Expedition

When they select a resource, teachers see the resource’s landing page. 


In addition to clicking the icon in the upper right corner to go directly to the resource, teachers can review “related resources” for that item. The related resources can be other lesson plans, online exhibitions, or objects from the collection and can help teachers look at a concept like civil rights, which is frequently taught in the context of the 1960’s, in new ways.  Civil rights can now be related to use of short handled hoes by migrant workers, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or the Great Migration.  These sometimes unexpected relationships among the Museum’s artifacts and online exhibitions make the site a truly unique tool for teachers.

 Scroll down to the National Standards

A deciding factor on whether or not a teacher uses a resource is a clear connection to standards, but rare is the teacher who knows the standards by heart.  To help with this problem we’ve linked every resource on Smithsonian’s History Explorer to the National Standards for History and created a “reverse look-up” feature so when teachers find a resource they like, they can click a link to find other resources that cover that same standard. Click any standard to reveal its supporting standard.  Click on any supporting standard to view a list of all of the resources the Museum has that cover that particular standard.  This feature also works for keywords and instructional strategies.




The site launched in September 2008 and visits have doubled compared to the “Educators” portion of our web site in 2007.


This site is Phase 1 of a multiphase project.  Phase 2 will involve incorporating more Web 2.0 functionality to encourage teachers and their students to tag resources and share content with each other and the Museum.

The entire project was funded through a grant from the Verizon Foundation, and the National Museum of American History is a Content Partner.


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